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28 February 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 2:32am

Is your computer alive?

Why we should treat rocks with respect

By Graham Harvey

“Are all rocks alive?” That was the question that Irving Hallowell, an American anthropologist, asked an old Anishinaabe man he was visiting in southern central Canada in the 1940s.

It’s unfortunate that Hallowell doesn’t tell us the man’s name, because this story has been repeated so often that the old man deserves to be better known. (I reprinted Hallowell’s article in a book called Readings in Indigenous Religions, published by Continuum in 2002.)

Hallowell’s question is not as bizarre as it might sound. In the Anishinaabe language a grammatical distinction is made between animate and inanimate genders rather than masculine and feminine genders.

Just as the English languages makes a distinction between male and female persons, using different pronouns (“he” and “she”), and different possessives (“hers” and “his”), so in the unnamed old man’s native tongue he would distinguish between animate persons and inanimate objects.

Well, it’s true that so too do English speakers: we have personal and impersonal pronouns. Human beings and pets (at least) can be either “she” or “he” but tables and rocks are “it”.

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The French extend the masculine and feminine genders to tables, chairs and other objects that would be called “it” in English. So, Hallowell might have asked a French Canadienne, “are all tables female?”, just as he asked the Anishinaabe elder, “Are all rocks alive?”

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The point of the question is to try to understand the animist worldview and life-way that is expressed by and in the way the language moulds and expresses ideas and knowledges.

In the old man’s mother-tongue, rocks are animate. How far does this Anishinaabe animism go? Are rocks really alive or is it just a linguistic conceit? Hallowell wanted to know if this was something deliberate in the old man’s understanding or if it was just a peculiarity of an inherited language.

In his answer the old man slowly unfolded his knowledge to the anthropologist who was asking the wrong question. “No, but some are”, he told Hallowell. When you read the full story you’ll see that what he meant was that the issue for animists really isn’t whether all rocks are alive or even whether it really makes sense to talk about hedgehogs or oaks as “persons” or “people”.

The important question isn’t a philosophical abstraction. Rather, the vital question for the old man was, “How do we engage respectfully with rocks?” You see, generally speaking, rocks are animate, they are “persons” in the sense that the language marks them as such – just as French marks tables as feminine.

But whether French people treat tables as female or not (whatever that would mean!), the Anishinaabe man treated some rocks as his neighbours, living beings or people who lived near him. He told stories about rocks with whom (note the pronoun) he and others related in specific ways. These relationships involved different degrees of intimacy, different actions, and they were tested by different encounters and experiences.

It’s important to note that most of the time Anishinaabeg people treat rocks in much the same way that Europeans do. They walk on them, throw them, make things from them.

Admittedly, Anishinaabeg are likely to offer rocks a gift of tobacco or other herbs before using them. But, generally speaking, just because rocks are persons doesn’t mean you have to greet each one every day.

See, it’s just like humanists: just because they respect other humans doesn’t mean they shake hands with everyone they see, most often they show respect by giving others space in which to be themselves.

What’s this got to do with computers? Well, it isn’t only rocks that can be spoken about as animate beings. Many human-made artefacts are also treated as alive and related in animist cultures too.

Next time you visit the British Museum you might like to go and show respect to the Pomo baskets on display there: according to their makers they are alive and worthy of respect.

And it isn’t just indigenous people who treat objects this way. Many of us give our cars names, and talk to them when they won’t start at the first go. Many of us swear at our computers when they deliberately, it seems, refuse to do what they’ve done a thousand times before, until now when there’s a deadline to meet… Now they pretend not to know what that click means!

It isn’t children or fools who treat rocks, baskets, cars and computers as alive, as relational beings. It is those who know these things well.

Just as you might ask “what is it?” about a new baby until you know it’s a “she” or a “he”, you might treat the world as an agglomeration of mere objects until you form more intimate relationships and realise that you are the sum of your relationships. You are, to some degree, an animist.